The Court of Appeals of Georgia upheld a jury award of over $1 million to whistleblowers in the small town of Pendergrass, GA, population 422. Katherine Rintoul and William Garner brought suit against the city for whistleblower retaliation under the Georgia Whistleblower Act. They alleged town officials retaliated against them after they handed over evidence of corruption and misuse of government funds. In addition to lost wages, the award includes over $300,000 in compensatory damages for each of them.
In June 2009, Garner and Rintoul met with Mayor Melvin Tolbert supplying him with evidence of misappropriation of city funds, misuse of city property, bribery of public officials, and other misdeeds by city officials and employees. Rintoul testified about the misuse of funds to pay for personal dinners, lawn equipment, and to provide personal loans to city employees. At the time of their meeting, Garner was a lieutenant for the Pendergrass police, and Rintoul was the City Clerk. Rintoul had also previously held other positions with the city.
Their information kicked off an investigation ultimately centered around Robert Russell, who served as both the City Administrator and Chief of Police. In retaliation, the chief of police demoted Russell and his docked his salary $10,000 per year.
The retaliation started shortly after Garner and Rintoul met with Mayor Tolbert. Garner was immediately suspended for ten days while Rintoul lost her job the following month, ostensibly due to budget cuts.
Additionally, at the same time, the police department moved its operations to the city hall, but Garner was left to continue working in the old police station by himself. Russell mandated that Garner be isolated from all city employees. Russell told Garner he would fire him if he communicated with any city. Garner resigned a few months later.
The City argued the jury’s award of damages “was based on mere speculation and grossly excessive” and filed an appeal. The Court of Appeals of Georgia refused to overturn the jury’s award. Judge Reese ruled the City’s argument was without merit explaining:
“The City approved the verdict form prior to the jury receiving it and inspected the verdict without objection after it was published. Based on the City’s approval of the verdict form, it left the determination of damages up to the jury. Moreover, during the charge conference, the City only requested additional verbiage in the verdict form to better define the causal connection between the verdict interrogatories and the statute. If the City desired an explanation of the basis for the damage award, it had opportunity to object to the verdict form, which allowed the jury full control to set the damage award, and change or reform the verdict form prior to jury deliberation. Moreover, the City did not request a judgment notwithstanding the verdict at the publication of the verdict, nor did the City file a motion for new trial. Ultimately, the jury weighed the testimony and evidence as presented and made factual determinations in order to award damages to the Appellees based upon those facts.”